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Pol/Econ: Further French Election Analysis
Monday, 23 April 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
Geir Jansen has outlined the realities of what happened in the French election earlier today. I don't want to repeat his article- and this is very much a supplement to what he says which contains the main 'news' of the evening- but I do think its worth putting these results in some kind of context. Even though they don't decide anything, the first rounds of French elections indicate the position of the French electorate on many things and are thus important. The election of 2002 demoralised the Socialists and led to the resignation of their major candidate Lionel Jospin and gave a lot of confidence to the far right of the French political spectrum. What has the first round this time done?

M. Le Pen's small total and the fact that Mme Royal's vote held up- that she managed to avoid the fate of M. Jospin, her predecessor as socialist candidate, who failed to make sure that enough voters whose second preference he was, backed him in the first round. The lesson of the events of the last election in which the left were forced to support the right's candidate against a Fascist seems to have been learnt on the left- the socialist candidate has got through to the second round.

If the lesson of the last French election was the strength of the political extremes with Jean Marie Le Pen, Arlette Laguiller a Trotskyite, Jean-Pierre Chevenment the populist leftwinger, Noel Mamere the Green, Olivier Besancot the Communist, Robert Hue another communist and Jean Saint Josse another populist getting above four percent and together getting roughly 44% of the vote. This time around the major candidates between them got 55% of the vote but their major rival was M. Bayrou a centre-rightish politician who got another 18% of the vote- add that to the totals of Sarkozy and Royalle and you get over 73% of the vote going to candidates who represented either the mainstream right, the mainstream left or the centre of French politics.

Part of the reason for this return to the centre may be the rise in turnout. The French Interior Ministry declared the turnout to be at around 85%, around 15% up on the turnout at the last election. French voters seem to have been energised to come to the polls and on the face of it, this election with its bigger turnout has disproportionately aided the mainstream parties. Its interesting to put this in the context of the recent American election where again rising turnout was an interesting factor- Sarkozy is frequently talked about for his American campaigning techniques, perhaps this is a result. More plausibly the rush to the centre ground strengthens those who argue that the French political system is not as ill as it might seem.

What this means for French politics is another question. Obviously we won't know until we know the results of the second round- the winner in a contest between M. Sarkozy and Mme Royal though would be the first leader since 1981 without the name Mitterand or Chirac. She or he would be the first leader of the French republic to have been born after the second world war- whose experience was framed by the events of the sixties and seventies, the decades of revolution and Pompidour rather than the experience of Vichy. Furthermore both of the candidates, particularly M Sarkozy have run as radicals, Royal has even praised the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a hated leader of the evil anglo-saxons. Despite being a member of the present government, M. Sarkozy has often seemed semi detached and has made a virtue of his pro-Anglo Saxon tendencies. Mme Royal may of course become the first woman President- an important act of symbolic radicalism at least.

Before answering that what should we make of these results? Well firstly its pretty obvious that the opinion polls seem to have been fairly accurate this time around- the last polls I saw showed these results to within the margin of error. M. Sarkozy's supporters many said would lie and pretend that they were voting for him whilst giving their votes to M Le Pen, that doesn't seem to have been what has happened this time. Rather the polls were surprisingly accurate- though they understated, unusually the attraction of the main candidates, the gap between Mme Royal and M Bayrou was often represented as probably being around 3% but actually turned out to be a massive 7%.

We are at an early stage- its hard to see where everything goes after this and the candidates now have a further chance to campaign to win the election. The first round seems to have been a fascinating round- demonstrating how much has changed since the last election in 2002. The demise of the Chirac generation has taken place against an environment of crisis in France, where the candidates have rushed to market themselves as outsiders. Furthermore voters seem to have run to the centre ground- with at least 10% more or extra voters backing the centre candidates over the extremes. A large turn out seems to demonstrate that French men and women want an effective government that will deal with their problems.

Therefore what we seem to have is a rebalancing. The consequences of this are harder to understand than the consequences of 2002 were- then the defeat of M. Jospin meant that it was the left who certainly would be conducting a post mortem afterwards. We don't know which side will be feeling bad on May 7th. What we do know however is that the National Front's leader Le Pen has suffered a major defeat- his ratings have remained static over the campaign, and unlike last time he fell to fourth place- a veteran of the far right, he was already in the early 2000s being assaulted by others, particularly his son-in-law M Megret, and his vote in 2002 held off the possibility of retirement but surely now the time has come. On the left again the centre has strengthened and it will be the minor parties licking their wounds- the French have voted for rationalists not populists. M Bayrou may well emerge as a strengthened figure- a possible Prime Minister one might think should France go into cohabitation in the next couple of years as a man with genuine cross over appeal.

A major other consequence, evident from this vote, is that the French have endorsed two candidates who are from outside the mainstream of French politics- both are radicals. Whether they can turn these numbers into real power should either reach the Presidency or just drift a la Chirac is another matter- whatever happens the 2007 election with a rising level of political engagement, a real sense of crisis and a drift away from the extremes towards the two party monoliths gives us indications that French politics could become exciting for quite some time to come.

NB A commentator who read this on my own blog reminded me that M Megret was not M Le Pen's son in law- merely a close colleague- apologies to readers for the mistake.